Officials urge blitz of funding for CWD

May 12, 2002 The Denver Post by Theo Stein
BOISE, Idaho - With a congressional hearing on chronic wasting disease scheduled for this week, biologists, agriculture officials and sportsmen called Saturday for massive federal funding to help study and control the fatal brain illness of deer and elk.

Idaho has not recorded a case of CWD, but outbreaks from Wisconsin to Canada brought wildlife supporters from across the continent to a weekend conference at Boise State University.

'I have not missed a hunting season since I returned from Korea 50 years ago,' said former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, who served as Interior Secretary under President Carter. 'I hope to still have that opportunity, and I hope my children will have it.' Steve Huffaker, director of the Idaho Fish and Game Department, said the hunting-and-fishing economy is equivalent to the Idaho potato industry. 'It's not just on the sports pages anymore,' he said.

On Thursday, a joint session of the House Subcommittee on Forest and Forest Health and the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans will hear from 18 governors, scientists, sportsmen and wildlife advocates about the economic and cultural threat posed by the disease.

First identified at a Colorado State University wildlife research station in 1967, chronic wasting disease has resisted 30 years of efforts to discern its secrets.

The disease, which causes its victims to grow thin and die as it eats holes in their brains and spinal cords, infects wild deer and elk in a 16,000-square-mile area of northeastern Colorado, adjacent parts of Wyoming and the Nebraska panhandle. It has infected almost 60 ranched elk herds in seven states and two Canadian provinces, most notably Colorado and Saskatchewan.

Veterinarians at the conference said that closing the knowledge gaps is vital to the success of any control program. Mary Kay Tinker, veterinarian for the USDA Animal Health and Plant Inspection Service's Idaho office, said problems - including uncertainty about the mode of transmission, the length of incubation and the lack of a live test - have hamstrung efforts to contain CWD outbreaks. A lack of coordination among state and federal agencies also has hurt, she said.

A major battleground over CWD is Wisconsin, where officials announced this month they will try to kill 15,000 white-tailed deer in a 300-square-mile area where 14 infected animals were killed last fall and this winter.

'There's a lot of scared people in my state,' said Ralph Fritsch, wildlife chair of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. Fritsch said the group supports the control plan. 'We feel the longer we sit and wait, the greater the chance (the disease) will expand.'

But a group called Citizens Against Irrational Deer Slaughter has formed to oppose the plan, claiming that too little is known about the disease to justify it.

'When you get into the public-policy arena, you learn there's a whole lot of politics and not a lot of science that goes into it,' said Duane Hovorka, executive director of the Nebraska Wildlife Federation, where officials hope to sample 4,000 mule deer brains this fall to find out how far the disease has spread in the western panhandle.

While Nebraska officials say it's too early to determine the origin of the outbreak, the link between infected game ranches and new infections in wild herds has Hovorka and many others calling for bans on the alternative livestock industry.

The resurrection of game herds by U.S. and Canadian officials 100 years ago was 'the greatest conservation success story in history,' said Darrel Rowledge, director of the Alberta group Alliance for Public Wildlife.

But diseases spawned on game farms threaten to undo that success, he said. Canadian officials have slaughtered 8,000 elk and spent $ 65 million to control CWD outbreak in Saskatchewan.

Alberta just had its first case, despite a 10-year ban on elk imports to the province.

More than a decade ago, the Canadian government's decision to let ranchers import elk from the U.S. - despite warnings that the existing tuberculosis test was ineffective - led to an outbreak that cost the nation its TB-free status, something it hasn't recovered from, Rowledge said.

'What's the justification for (game ranching)?' he said. 'It's brown on the environmental side, and on the economic side it bleeds red ink.'

'The solution to the problem is not to run elk ranchers out of business,' said Dr. Rex Rammell, an elk rancher and veterinarian from Rexburg, Idaho. 'This is not our fault. We have a right to exist commercially, so there's no use talking about any more moratoriums on movement.'

Gloria Stigall, whose family was forced to euthanize a herd of elk boarded at a Del Norte, Colo., ranch caught up in last year's outbreak, pleaded for cooperation between wildlife and agricultural interests.

All 37 of her elk had to be slaughtered for officials to perform the brain tests for the infectious protein believed to cause the malady. None were infected.

'It absolutely ripped the soul out of me,' Stigall said in a quavering voice. 'Please take the money you're using to battle each other and develop a live test.'

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